I received a large postcard the other day from a local fitness center. It had pictures of attractive models and bullet points listing all of its equipment and features. It included an offer to join without paying the joiner's fee.

I wish I would have saved every mail piece I received from this club in the past eight years. They likely were almost identical. I can live with the models. (Although I strongly recommend that fitness centers use photos of their staff and their members instead of models.) I despise the bullet points. Listing all of the boring equipment that the prospect already figures you have is pointless. Yes, even the people who have never been a member of a fitness center have figured out that you have fitness equipment.

But the most perplexing thing to me is that during the past eight years, not one of these mail pieces has offered a trial membership. Not one. Why not?

I think that gym owners shy away from the trial offer for three reasons:

  • They conflate marketing and sales, meaning they expect the marketing piece to do the selling. However, a marketing piece is designed to get the phone to ring, door to swing and inbox to ding. That is it.
  • Pressure from the sales staff. Membership salespeople historically do not like trial memberships. They do not want people to try the facility. They want to make a sale and a commission and then move on to the next unit.
  • When clubs do offer trials, their salespeople fail to get most prospects to join after the trial.

In the last several years, the percentage of Americans who have gym memberships increased from 16 percent to 17 percent, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). During that same time, the number of fitness centers in this country increased by at least 10 percent and likely closer to 20 percent.

This means that there are more gyms but not more members. Fitness centers simply do not have the traffic that they did a few years ago. They cannot rely on a handful of walk-ins per day who say, "I just want to get signed up."

To get people who have always been on the couch to make the transition to fitness, you have to let them try before they buy. "To know you is to love you," my friend Thomas Plummer always says. He also says, "If you want them to become a member, you have to treat them like a member."

The old school selling method used high pressure and drop closing tactics. When prospects stated after a tour that they wanted to think about it, the old school method would say that the salesperson had not done his or her job. With the old way of selling, salespeople would handle that objection, either before it came up or after. Either way, the result was an uncomfortable situation for both the salesperson and the prospect. If a sale was not made, the prospect likely never returned.

This way of selling was never a good way to do business, but you could get away with it a few years ago when prospects' choices were limited. Those days are gone forever.

The new way of selling involves marketing with one of the following messages:

  • 30 days for $19 (or whatever 50 percent of your single, simple access membership is)
  • 21 days free

I recommend using the paid trial 75 percent of the time or for about nine months of the year. During the other three months, you can mix in the 21-day free offer.

When prospects call, your sales staff should make an appointment with the prospects and mention the trial membership to increase the likelihood the people will make an appointment. When prospects come into the club, mention the trial right away to decrease prospects' anxiety.

After a tour and during the price presentation, offer a free gym bag if the prospect wants to sign a 12-month agreement today. Inform them that the price is the price, and it will not change in 30 days. The only difference is they are entitled to a free gym bag (make it a nice one) if they join today. They still get their first 30 days for your 50 percent price (or the first 21 days free if you are running that promotion). The bag is just an incentive gesture to get a few to join today rather than in 21 or 30 days.